Estonia's cultural ties with India and China are growing, a study has found. While spiritual and religious groups and symbols are gaining popularity, rapidly growing Indian and Chinese communities are also contributing to cultural exchanges.
The University of Tartu Asia Center researched India, China and Singapore's political, economic and cultural impact on Estonia. Superpowers often use soft power to influence international actors. Soft power is a country's attractive qualities to other nations, while hard power would entail coercion, military force and other hostile behaviors.
According to the study, China and India are geopolitical adversaries but not soft power rivals in Estonia. Their foreign policy strategies have a different regional focus here than in Central and Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries.
"China and India are two of the largest countries in the world with ambitions to become a global power and to increase their political, economic and cultural role in the immediate neighborhood and beyond. With such ambitions, they are also interested in Estonia and the surrounding region. Unsurprisingly, however, their priorities remain with their immediate neighbors in South and Southeast Asia," Agnieszka Nitza-Makowska, one of the study's authors, told ERR.
In this way, even if their objectives are bigger, these countries leave a hardly visible impression on Estonia. While experts, academics, governments and societies around the world disagree on whether China is a soft power, the Global Soft Power Rank classified China as the world's fourth soft power in 2022, trailing the U.S., the U.K., and Germany, while India came in 29th place.
The sharp edges of Chinese soft power in Estonia
According to the authors of the study, China's presence in Estonia is much stronger than that of India. However, it is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of Estonians because of its authoritarian power practices. This allows India, bound by democratic traditions, to launch effective soft power strategies in Estonia and the surrounding region.
China's main sources of soft power include its traditional culture and values, foreign policy and development model. It also has an impact, for example, on science, technology and innovation. Estonia is quite suspicious of China's "soft" approaches. For example, Estonia has called on Western countries to invest in infrastructure to compete with China's Silk Road project, which is seen as China's soft power tool.
Estonia also left the 16+1 forum for Central and Eastern European countries, founded in Beijing in August 2022, due to China's stand on the Ukrainian war, but also due to the lack of benefits. Latvia and Lithuania left the Forum after Estonia. "Beijing tends to set up a wide range of initiatives and cooperation projects, especially in the Global South but then neglects them. This format of cooperation is not best suited for Estonia and other European countries," Agnieszka Nitza-Makowska said.
"Our research shows that the Estonian government and public identify China with human rights abuses. Estonia also considers many soft power instruments, such as investment in science and technology, to be more of a hard power tool in China's case," Nitza-Makowska said. At the same time, according to her, there is also a pragmatic approach: Estonia considers China an important trade and cooperation partner.
"This is particularly evident in diplomatic dealings. However, diplomatic relations have started to fade after 2020," the political scientist added.
As China and Estonia strengthen economic and cultural connections, Chinese symbols have become more visible in Estonia, becoming part of Estonia's landscape, from the Chinese dragon emblem atop the Chinese Embassy in Tallinn to Chinese-language symbols and billboards in shopping malls and tourist destinations.
Chinese animal characters, which are associated with diverse personality qualities and destinies based on birth year, are popular in Estonian tourist shops as jewelry and souvenirs. Feng shui, the Chinese belief that environmental management affects health, wealth, and happiness, is also popular in Estonia. Some Estonians use feng shui in their homes and offices.
The development of Chinese symbols in Estonia is linked to China's growing economic and cultural influence worldwide and represents modern social diversity.
Indian spiritual and religious influences taking root in Estonia
Democratic politics, traditional beliefs, and national culture are India's soft power sources. Indian democracy has declined from "free" to "partly free" in Freedom House's 2021 Global Freedom Ranking, yet it shares democratic values with liberal democracies in Europe.
India, therefore, has the capacity to emerge as a soft power in Estonia as well as in Central and Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries, especially at the expense of authoritarian trendsetters such as China and Russia. In Estonia, however, India's soft power is still negligible. However, India's growing interest in Estonia is demonstrated by the embassy that opened in Tallinn in 2021.
According to the analysis, the exchange of cultural values in the spiritual and religious sphere is huge and growing. Examples include the explosion in popularity of yoga, tantra and Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine. This marks a certain diffusion of Buddhist and Hindu values in Estonia. Belief and popular culture, however, can be considered the softest end of the soft power spectrum.
Tallinn and other cities are home to a wide variety of groups and religious communities practicing Indian traditions. Apart from the most prominent, ISKCON (Hare Krishna), there are other groups of transcendental meditation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi), Sathya Sai Baba followers, and loosely organized groups around the Shakti Center, Shiva's Center and others. There are also several Buddhist institutes in Estonia, such as the Drikung Kagyu Ratna Shri Center, etc..
Singapore's soft power
Singapore's most effective soft power is its education system. The country's universities are among the world's top academic institutions and its schools also score highly on PISA. Unlike India and China, Singapore is not trying to exert its soft power on Estonia. Estonia, however, is very interested in Singapore. Over the past few years, Estonia has made clear efforts at the official level to make its name more recognizable and attractive to potential Singapore partners.
The main areas of cooperation between Estonia and Singapore are the digitization of both government and businesses, investment in start-ups, and defense cooperation. Estonia's strong interest can also be seen as an example of the effectiveness of Singapore's soft power. Estonia puts a strong emphasis on the same areas and the two small countries share a common view on the global economy.
As small countries and digital tigers, Estonia and Singapore can bring governments together and encourage citizen-to-citizen connections, according to the report. Singapore's decision to join the West against Russia's aggression in Ukraine, unlike China and India's neutrality, enhances this alliance.
All in all, Singapore's presence in Estonia is still modest, but growing in digital solutions, education cooperation and security technologies.
Immigration imports soft power
The study shows that the flow of new migrants from India and China to Estonia is increasing. In 2020, Chinese and Indian citizens accounted for 10.5 and 8.9 percent, respectively, of the country's total foreign-born population. Communities act as magnets for new migrants through their support networks and sense of cultural belonging. As a result, the immigration of Chinese and Indian citizens to Estonia has increased steadily in recent years.
Many Chinese and Indian migrants in Estonia are well educated, with academic degrees in technical sectors. As a result, they work in highly skilled occupations, particularly in the technology industry, which attracts Chinese and Indian firms.
There are relatively few Indian and Chinese-owned companies in Estonia compared to other countries, but they are profitable and operate in strategically important sectors such as IT, technological infrastructure development and telecoms.
The growing business activities of Chinese and Indian companies in Estonia are also a source of soft power. It allows them to enhance their global reputation, showcase their technological capabilities and promote cultural exchanges. As China and India continue to expand their economic presence in Estonia, the extent of their soft power is likely to grow. Huawei, Tencent Estonia, and HCL Technologies collaborate with research centers and universities to share expertise.
Many Chinese migrants are drawn by education, while Indian migrants are drawn mostly by family reunification. Strong ties with established diasporas in China and India, which enjoy a reasonably high and stable economic and social standing in Estonia, can be ascribed to the growing trend in new immigration flows.
Editor: Kristina Kersa